by Casey Nelson Blake, Professor of History, Columbia University and Senior Historian, The Armory Show at 100

Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870–1942), Grace Godwin’s Garret, Greenwich Village, ca. 1917. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society

Jessie Tarbox Beals (1870–1942), Grace Godwin’s Garret, Greenwich Village, ca. 1917. Gelatin silver print. New-York Historical Society

The Armory Show’s organizers could count on an enthusiastic turnout by the artists, intellectuals, and activists living in Greenwich Village. With a population of 45,000, the Village was the neighborhood of choice for young, middle-class people fleeing what they saw as the provincialism of the heartland. John Reed came from Portland, Oregon; Mabel Dodge and Max Eastman from upstate New York; Randolph Bourne from New Jersey; and John Sloan from Philadelphia. Leaders of the Chicago literary scene also arrived, including Theodore Dreiser, Floyd Dell, Margaret Anderson, and Jane Heap. These newcomers moved into a neighborhood left behind by midtown development. There were cheap apartments, and empty storefronts and carriage houses that Villagers converted into studios, bookstores, and little theaters.

The Villagers came to live what Bourne called “the experimental life.” They believed in a revolution in personal morality, as well as art and politics. Unmarried men and women lived together openly. They talked frankly about sexuality and women’s demands for greater autonomy. And they insisted that radicalism, feminism, progressive education, and modern art shared the same goal of liberating people’s capacity for self-expression.

Above all, the Villagers were committed to free speech. If New York was the global capital of modernity, the Village became the capital for argument about what modernity meant.  The Liberal Club, the anarchist Ferrer School, and the feminist group Heterodoxy fostered a contentious intellectual scene. New journals—The Masses, The Seven Arts, and The Little Review—championed radical politics and modernism. Dodge held salons in her Fifth Avenue apartment for discussions of Freud and Marx, the labor movement, and modern art. “The essence of it all,” she later recalled, “was communication.”

By decade’s end the Village was a tourist destination. Gentrification forced out many artists and writers. Far from a counter-culture, critic Malcolm Cowley later charged, the Village had prefigured the “consumption ethic” of modern capitalism.

Recommended reading:

Casey Nelson Blake, “Greenwich Village Modernism:  ‘The Essence of It All Was Communication,’” in The Armory Show at 100:  Modernism and Revolution, eds. Marilyn Satin Kushner, Kimberly Orcutt, and Casey Nelson Blake (New York: New-York Historical Society in association with D. Giles, London, 2013).

Malcolm Cowley, Exile’s Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s (New York: Viking, 1951).

Christine Stansell, American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000).

Steven Watson, Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde (New York: Abbeville, 1991).

The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution is on view October 11, 2013 through February 23, 2013 at the New-York Historical Society.

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